This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

GA220 + Day One.



            We call ourselves disciples of Jesus.  But it is very difficult for us to do what Jesus did.  But maybe as a start we could avoid doing what Jesus wouldn’t do.  Maybe that’s an approach to discipleship we can handle.  Healing the sick and raising the dead may be a stretch for us.  Even living simply by forgiveness, charity, and generosity seems taxing.  But we can at least not do any harm.  Maybe asking “What would Jesus do?” is helpful, but somewhat above our weight class.  Asking: “What wouldn’t Jesus do?” might be a better place to start.  Maybe we can handle “What would Jesus definitely not do?” as some kind of bare minimum standard.
            Jesus was not part of the establishment of his time.  If he had any family pretensions to privilege – he was a descendent of King David on his adoptive father’s side, and his mother came from a priestly family – he certainly put all that behind him when he started his ministry.  As far as we know, Jesus owned practically nothing.  The details of daily life in his entourage are maddeningly sketchy.  Did they sleep outdoors?  In people’s homes?  Did disciples scrounge their own food?  Or did those wealthy women who supported him provide meals and shelter?  (Mark 15:41; Luke 8:2-3.)  We don’t know.  What we may safely assume is that Jesus and his disciples did not stay in fancy hotels and eat at the best restaurants.  He gathered people together outdoors on hillsides, or in homes for family meals.  He did attend banquets and wedding receptions, if he was invited.
            Last week Susan and I spent four days at the Wildgoose Festival, in North Carolina.  The festival is a gathering of followers of Jesus who camp and cook in the woods, spending the days hearing lectures, engaging in conversations, taking workshops, worshiping, and listening to music.  This is all outdoors or under tents.  It is joyous and intense.  The only thing I can compare it to, and it is a loose comparison to be sure, is the periodic gatherings held by the early Franciscans in the Italian countryside.  Surely they didn’t have RV’s or nylon tents, but the simplicity and sense of community with each other and the earth is something these events have in common.  Wildgoose also echoes Methodist camp-meetings and other multi-day revivals from the 19th and 20th centuries. 
            To go from Wildgoose to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a moral leap of light-years.  It is the difference between Woodstock and a corporate stock-holders’ meeting.  The General Assembly sees itself as part of the American establishment, and it acts like it.  I am staying on the 9th floor of the Omni Hotel, with bracing air-conditioning, thorough maid-service, a TV, and lots of other amenities.  The restaurants downstairs are almost laughably expensive.  The meetings themselves happen in a gigantic, new Convention Center a few blocks away.  The proceedings are projected onto huge screens and the commissioners vote electronically.  And so on.
            Would Jesus (or Francis) do any of this, given the opportunity?  Of course not.  When Jesus is given the opportunity to behave in a “normal,” establishment way, flaunting power, wealth, and relevance, it is offered by Satan in the wilderness, and he summarily rejects it.  Indeed, his dismissal of this approach is what validates his Messiahship, and allows him to commence his ministry.
            The General Assembly meets for ecclesiastical governance.  We review our common rules.  Our common money needs to be spent with responsibility and accountability.  Plus, as a friend remarked last night, “G.A. is like ‘old home week.’  It’s when you reconnect with people from many different times in your life and ministry.”  And there is always a value to all this.  Jesus’ entourage had the voice of the Lord himself.  We have to discern his Word and Spirit as they emerge in the voices of the community.  We cherish these conversations and even the arguments.  This is the way we seek to hear and do Jesus Christ’s will for us here and now.
            But does it have to look and feel so much like an assembly of accounting or insurance executives?  Does it have to be so wildly expensive?  Do we really need the multi-starred hotels and restaurants?
            I am not saying that the General Assembly needs to look quite as rustic as Wildgoose, let alone gather in the open on the side of a hill, as with Jesus.  But surely there is a simpler, more missionally responsible way to do this.

            The opening worship at a General Assembly is usually pretty spectacular.  The local hosts often seem to want to put on the best show possible.  This year’s version was fairly conventional (unlike the controversial service of last time with the Native American elements).  There was a big choir and other assorted high-quality musicians, including a jazz combo.  We saw beautiful liturgical dancing, heard a solid sermon from the outgoing Moderator, and celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper together.  This was in a cavernous space, with the action projected on screens for those of us seated in the distance.  They ran out of chairs so I sat on the floor back with some families with kids running around.  The seating was in the usual long, straight lines, and all the action happened at one end. 
            The elements of communion were grape juice – which Presbyterians are certainly used to – and gluten-free bread, which tasted kind of like drywall.  I understand the motivation for both of these.  We are attempting to be sensitive to people for whom the traditional elements of wine and real bread would be toxic.  And maybe it was logistically impractical to offer choices to such a large assembly.  Maybe having such choices would undermine the unity these symbols are meant to communicate.  And it’s certainly not about the taste.  Neither would I want the majority to carelessly exclude the few who cannot tolerate alcohol or gluten.  But in a world where more and more of what we consume is tampered with to make it “free” of substances someone has deemed bad for us, a world, that is, of “no fat, no dairy, no sugar” “ice cream,” I miss the authenticity and simplicity of wine and bread.  I get nervous when we try and do things better than Jesus.

            The main action for Saturday evening is the election of a Moderator.  Every Assembly elects its own Moderator, who serves a single two-year term.  The Moderator of General Assembly, after chairing the meeting for the rest of the week, becomes a kind of good-will ambassador for the denomination for two years.  It is the highest office we have.  Moderators have a lot of influence.
            This year the Moderator chosen is a friend and colleague of mine, Neal Presa.  Neal is very bright and clearly gifted in many areas.  I congratulate him.  It is very exciting for him, his family, and even for our presbytery and his friends.
            The way we choose a Moderator (and make decisions in General Assembly generally) is very much imported from Modern, representative, democratic governance.  It is easy to forget that there is no biblical basis for it (though the voice of the people has been significant since the early days of the church).  In previous years, the election process looked disturbingly like a secular political campaign.  This year steps were taken to diminish some of these similarities.  Thank God.
            But I have always thought that not wanting to be Moderator would be one of the most important qualifications for the job.  I wonder if anyone who wants to be Moderator, should be one.  In the history of the church, many of the most faithful and effective leaders were compelled to take offices of leadership against their will.  It is hard to maintain the humility and simplicity Jesus requires, and at the same time put yourself forward for an office like bishop or abbot, with the power, prestige, and sometimes even wealth, that accompany them.  Christian history is even more horribly marred by avaricious, megalomaniacal leaders, who put themselves forward and even manipulated the system through cut-throat (literally, in the case of some Medieval Popes) power politics.  Christians have learned through bitter experience that power corrupts.  Most saints knew how dangerous it was, and avoided power like the cancer it is.
            Jesus and the Apostles rejected power, exercising authority instead by the strength of their moral and spiritual life.  Jesus fled from people wanting to make him king.  He forbade his disciples to tell anyone he was the Messiah.  He talked about and exercised power in weakness and service.  I’m sorry, but I can imagine only a handful of our Moderators kneeling down and washing the grimy feet of a room full of homeless men.
            But the Spirit works in unexpected ways in the church.  I suspect that the Assembly wanted Neal, who is a young, well-spoken Philippino-American, with a Korean wife and two smart young sons, to be the face we present to the world for the next two years.  That alone speaks well of us, I think.  It may not honestly reflect a denomination that is 94% white, with a median age of 55.  But maybe it says something about the future we hope for.    
            I wish Neal well.  I know the Holy Spirit will now equip him for this task with new abilities and gifts.  May he come to reflect and express the simplicity, humility, and servanthood of the Lord Jesus in his leadership role among us.  That would make him a great Moderator.   

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